Fallout at Fukushima

What risks does Japan face as a result of radiation leakage from the nuclear power plant hit by the recent earthquake and tsunami?

By | March 22, 2011

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France
Image: Wikimedia Commons, Stefan Kuhn
Technicians in Japan struggle to contain breeches in cooling and containment apparatuses at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in eastern Japan, which was hit by the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11th. Though considerable uncertainty remains concerning the exact amount of radioactive material that has leaked from the facility thus far, low level radiation has turned up in crops grown in the vicinity of the plant, and the danger of a widespread catastrophe lingers. This week, __The Scientist__ examines the latest research on the effects of radiation and explores some of the worst-case-scenario health and environmental effects of a nuclear disaster in Japan. The acute effects of radiation Late last week, a skeleton crew of about 50 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was urgently attempting to cool the reactor core, as specially-fitted helicopters tried (and failed) to drop tons of seawater on the failing facility. Early this week, linkurl:reports;http://www.voanews.com/english/news/asia/east-pacific/Workers-Evacuated-as-Smoke-Rises-From-Japanese-Nuclear-Plant-118350314.html from Japan indicated that the last workers trying to save the facility from catastrophe evacuated as smoke billowed from two of the reactor units. Radiation levels currently being reported by Japanese officials are still quite low, and the early public evacuation reduced the concern for community health risks, said William Schull, emeritus professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and an expert on the health effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 1940s. But the workers at the nuclear plants still risked acute radiation exposure and serious health problems as a result, he added. Upon direct exposure to ionizing radiation, anemia -- the loss of red blood cells -- and leucopenia -- the loss of white blood cells such as those important in fighting off infection -- can result, increasing susceptibility to disease. In addition, someone directly exposed to radiation may display other symptoms of acute radiation syndrome (ARS), such as vomiting, diarrhea, excessive bleeding brought on from the death of hematopoietic stem cells in bone marrow, and hair loss. Such symptoms, however, are caused by exposure of 1-10 grays (Gy), a unit of absorbed radiation dose. The doses of radiation leaking from the Japanese reactor are far below this: On Saturday, Japanese news outlet __NHK News__ linkurl:reported;http://www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/21_22.html that the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, detected radioisotope iodine 131 at about 5.9 milibecquerels per cubic centimeter, or about 0.0003 Gy/hour. (Click linkurl:here;http://xkcd.com/radiation/ for an infographic comparing the radiation dose absorbed by humans engaged in various activities.) But "things could quickly worsen," Schull said. If radiation continues to seep from the reactor, officials could use a recently devised classification linkurl:system;http://bjr.birjournals.org/cgi/reprint/81/963/232.pdf to assess the health of those exposed. The Radiation Injury Severity Classification (RISC) system estimates three sets of clinical and haematological parameters to calculate "a combined score [that] gives you a pretty accurate estimate of what's going to happen to this person," said University of Pittsburgh biostatistician Richard Day, who collaborated in the creation of RISC. Applying the system to 59 workers in a Russian nuclear fuel production facility, Day, linkurl:Niel Wald;http://www.eoh.pitt.edu/directory/faculty.asp of the University of Pittsburgh, and coauthors estimated threshold values for some ARS symptoms, including vomiting (∼1.5 Gy), severely low white blood cell count (∼3.5 Gy), and mortality (∼6-7 Gy). "In the roughly 115 years since Roentgen discovered X-rays we have learned a lot about the values and hazards of exposure to ionizing radiation," Schull said. "But we still have a hell of a lot to learn." -- Bob Grant Radiation and the immune system Although most cells in the body can withstand considerable doses of radiation before dying, immune cells begin to react at even small doses of radiation. While recent reports suggest that the workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant have so far only been exposed to relatively low levels of radiation, their exposure could trigger immunological reactions -- though depending on the dose, not all of them may be harmful. According to several reports, workers at the Fukushima plant have been exposed to radiation levels ranging from 200-400 millisieverts (mSv, a measure of radiation absorbed by a person) per hour -- levels that the human body can withstand with minimal damage, said Richard Wakeford, visiting epidemiology professor at the Dalton Nuclear Institute of the University of Manchester. Once doses reach levels of 500 mSv or more, however, the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells involved in immune response, is cut by half within a few days, and there is considerable damage to stem cells in the bone marrow, said Yoichiro Kusunoki, chief of the department of radiobiology and molecular epidemiology at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima, Japan, in an email. At high doses, these effects can be long lasting. According to studies of atomic bomb survivors, T-cells never fully recover, neither in number nor effectiveness, although stem cells and other immune cells bounce back to normal levels in about two months. The body compensates for these shortfalls by increasing levels of inflammatory cytokines -- a pattern that resembles the immune systems of the elderly, suggesting that the immune system may age more rapidly after radiation exposure. But the production of inflammatory cytokines can be seen even at "a relatively low dose (several mSv) that does not trigger apoptosis of any types of cells," added Kusunoki. This short term inflammation could initially be protective by helping clear cells damaged by the radiation. However, researchers studying radiation exposure during cancer radiation therapy linkurl:suggest;http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16438994 that low doses of radiation that trigger inflammation could also initiate the kind of chronic inflammation that leads to cancer. -- Edyta Zielinska
**__Related stories:__*** linkurl:Radiation resistance;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20011122/01/
[22nd November 2001]*linkurl:Our Radiation Protection Policy Is A Hazard To Public Health;http://www.the-scientist.com/images/yr1997/mar/opin_970303.html
[3rd March 1997]

**__Related F1000 Evaluations:__***linkurl:Exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation from medical imaging procedures;http://f1000.com/1166932?key=h68z8cxn689tvpn
R. Fazel et al., N Engl J Med, 361:849-57, 2009. Evaluated by Luna Gargani and Eugenio Picano, Institute of Clinical Physiology of CNR, Italy.*linkurl:Chromosomal instability in unirradiated hematopoietic cells induced by macrophages exposed in vivo to ionizing radiation;http://f1000.com/1124431?key=dd63lgc8qxmhf88
S.A. Lorimore, Cancer Res, 68:8122-6, 2008. Evaluated by Len Neckers National Cancer Institute, NIH.

Comments

Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 74

March 22, 2011

The article is a skeleton. \n\nGamma, beta and alpha radiation are different, and all but gamma are relatively easily blocked. \n\nExposure to radionuclides ingested results in concentration in some tissues, depending on the element. This is like injected radioactive tracers. The gamma, beta and alpha decays do maximal damage internally. \n\nCesium is distributed everywhere because it acts like potassium. Uranium and plutonium tend to migrate to bone and marrow, which is highly problematic. Strontium to bone where it takes the place of calcium. Uranium and plutonium can also get into lung tissue by aerosol. Iodine goes to the thyroid unless the thyroid is fully supplied. \n\nSo some parts of treatments vary by type of exposure, some are general. \n\nUranium and plutonium pulmonary exposure can be responsive to sodium bicarbonate and lavage (carefully done). Chelating agents can help clear them in blood before they move to marrow where they do serious damage. \n\nCesium can be flushed by drinking potassium salt fluids like gatorade or diluted seawater. Srontium can be flushed by drinking calcium fluids for months. Most energy drinks have calcium, and of course milk, and many other foods. Everyone knows to supplement with iodine salts to keep radioactive iodine out of the thyroid as much as possible. But the window is very short because the half-life of iodine-131 is 8 days. Iodine-125 has a half-life of 59 days, so it's still useful if someone has been exposed. \n\nGeneral treatment:\nPABA, (para-amino benzoic acid) a B vitamin, can be given in 2 gram doses (up to about 5 grams) 5 times a day, orally. This is one of the most useful things to do to help the body's DNA repair mechanisms. People with PABA metabolism deficiency have problems. It is good to supplement that with a reasonable B-Complex. Continue for 3-6 months. \n\nCalendula oil is used in cancer treatment to prevent and heal radiation burns. It works. Up to 2 ml several times a day taken internally. Continue for 2-3 months. \n\nCod liver oil. The vitamin A and D are necessary for healing and membrane maintenance. The omega-3s help with inflammation and immune function. One month at high supplementation followed by 2 months at medium. High is around 50,000 IU of D per day from the oil. \n\nHyperbaric oxygen can be helpful to the immune system after radiation fighting apoptosis and saving leukocytes. 20-30 treatments.
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

March 22, 2011

Interesting! I'm sorry about the last couple of days and not commenting, but I've been getting into "real life."
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 7

March 22, 2011

Tokyo Electric Power Company has been fairly open, putting out press releases on their web-site, updating the situation often several times a day. \nhttp://www.tepco.co.jp/index-j.html\n\nThe press releases are under the grey tab to the left at the bottom of the page.\n\nIf you click on the links about 福島第一原子力発電 or 福島第ニ原子力発電etc, there is a new page with the press release other links to pdf files containing the radiation release data.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 22, 2011

As noted in an accompanying coment it is helpful to know what type of radiation is present and what the radionuclotide is. Some are relatively safe and others are extremely toxic
Avatar of: DENNIS HOLLENBERG

DENNIS HOLLENBERG

Posts: 26

March 24, 2011

In the interest of accuracy, it should be pointed out that the article's subtitle errs:\n\n"What risks does Japan face as a result of radiation leakage from the nuclear power plant hit by the recent earthquake and tsunami?"\n\n"Radiation" is primarily high-energy photons (aside from short-range beta and alpha particles) and doesn't "leak" (unless the source is missing radiation shielding, like Pb). However, radioactivity can leak and be transported to contaminate other areas when radioactive material flows out of a damaged steel reactor-core containment vessel with the leaking coolant (water, in this case).

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